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FIFA set to approve 48-team World Cup

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FIFA is set to make the World Cup bigger and richer, even if the price to pay is lower quality soccer.

FIFA President Gianni Infantino hopes his ruling Council will agree Tuesday to expand the 2026 World Cup to 48 nations, playing in 16 groups of three teams.

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A decision could be delayed if some Council members demand to know exactly how many qualifying places each continent will get before agreeing to scrap the 32-team format. It has been successful, popular and profitable since 1998 and is locked in for the next two World Cups in Russia and Qatar.

The prize of 16 extra places, and the biggest increases to Africa and Asia, has “overwhelming” support from FIFA’s 211 member federations, Infantino has said.

Their promise of extra funding from Zurich could also be secured by FIFA’s forecast 20 percent rise in rights fees paid by broadcasters and sponsors.

“Financially, the 48-team format is the most appealing or successful simply because the sporting element is prevailing and every match is important,” Infantino said two weeks ago. “The decision should not be financially driven, neither in terms of revenue or costs … but the driver should really be the development of football and boosting football all over the world.”

[ WATCH: Pulisic scores as Dortmund beat PSV in friendly ]

World Cup champion Germany is not in favor. It argued that diluting the number of European and South American teams – which won all 20 titles since 1930 – could “strengthen the imbalance” seen at some tournaments.

“The (German soccer federation) fundamentally believe that the current 32-team format is the best option,” its president Reinhard Grindel said last week. Germany has no delegate at Tuesday’s meeting though Grindel is set to join the FIFA Council in May.

FIFA acknowledged the risk of lower standards in a research document sent to members last month, as first reported by The Associated Press.

The “absolute quality” of soccer, defined by high-ranked teams playing each other most often, is achieved by 32 teams, FIFA said, citing 10,000 tournament simulations made to reach that conclusion.

Still, Infantino promised voters more World Cup places and funding raises before his election last February.

FIFA expects $5.5 billion income tied to the 2018 World Cup in Russia, though 25 of 34 sponsorship slots are unsold. The research document predicted the equivalent of $6.5 billion revenue from a 48-team tournament in the “16×3” format, which would send two teams from each group to a new Round of 32 knockout bracket.

[ MORE: Saturday’s transfer rumor roundup | Friday | Thursday ]

All 80 matches would play in an exclusive time slot. Currently, 64 World Cup matches have 56 broadcast slots because the eight four-team groups play their last matches simultaneously.

FIFA predicts organizing costs for “16×3” rising from $2 billion to $2.3 billion, giving a potential profit rise of $640 million.

Though a “16×3” World Cup would still need a maximum of 12 stadiums, the demand for 16 more top-quality training camps and hotels suggests FIFA would look for 2026 hosts with existing capacity.

A North American bid from two or three of the United States, Canada and Mexico is currently favored in a contest that could start within weeks.

Five options are open Tuesday, including staying with 32 teams.

Infantino campaigned last year on a 40-team promise, in either eight groups of five teams or 10 groups of four teams. Neither impressed voters in recent regional meetings of FIFA member federations.

When the FIFA leader first proposed 48 teams, it included an opening playoff round. The 16 winners would join 16 seeded teams in a traditional 32-team group stage.

[ MORE: FA Cup wrap — Three Premier League sides upset ]

FIFA members disliked “one-and-done” teams going home before the “real” World Cup kicks off. It would also stretch to a 39-day event with more short-notice travel for fans.

Africa and Asia could be the big winners, and FIFA hopes new teams would include another Iceland, Wales and Costa Rica – over-achieving teams and feelgood stories at recent tournaments.

Still, hapless Tahiti was outclassed at the 2013 Confederations Cup, conceding 24 goals in three games.

“The goal of expanding the FIFA World Cup,” it has told members, “is to further advance the vision to promote the game of football, protect its integrity and bring the game to all.”

Entry quotas for 2018 World Cup: Europe 14 (including host Russia to qualify direct); Africa 5; Asia and South America 4.5 each; North, Central America and Caribbean 3.5; Oceania 0.5.

Bologna draws 3-3 at Lazio to secure Serie A safety

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ROME (AP) Bologna secured Serie A football for another season after drawing at Lazio 3-3 in a thriller on Monday.

Bologna moved four points clear of the relegation zone with one match remaining.

Lazio was still celebrating winning the Italian Cup midweek and Joaquin Correa fired the capital side in front in the 13th minute.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

However, two goals in the space of a minute from Andrea Poli and Mattia Destro saw Bologna take the lead early in the second half.

Bastos curled in a stunning effort to level for Lazio in the 59th but Riccardo Orsolini restored Bologna’s lead shortly after.

Substitute Sergej Milinkovic-Savic secured a draw for Lazio with a sensational free kick 10 minutes from time.

More AP soccer: https://apnews.com/apf-Soccer and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Choosing a USMNT XI for the Gold Cup

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Noting that most positions on the international stage are up for grabs based on form, there are special opportunities on the wing, right back, and center back when it comes to the USMNT at the Gold Cup this summer.

That’s because of two related things, one fact and one close to it:

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

  1. DeAndre Yedlin and John Brooks are missing from the lineup due to injury. Brooks is easily the Yanks’ No. 1 center back, and Yedlin is a right back when Tyler Adams is unavailable and good enough that Gregg Berhalter tries to shoehorn him in at right wing when Adams is manning that spot.
  2. Mexico’s the overwhelming favorite to win the tournament with more in-form club players in Europe than the U.S., including would-be Premier League Best XI forward Raul Jimenez of Wolves. And who’s going to have to deal with Raul? You guessed it, the big American center backs.

Presuming Berhalter is still wed to Adams as the part-fullback, part distributing midfielder role, that has our lineup for important Gold Cup matches with few sure things.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — XXXXX — XXXXX — XXXXX

McKennie — Bradley

XXXXX — Pulisic — XXXXX

Altidore

Now you may not like that I’ve assumed Bradley and Altidore’s places here, but there’s little doubt both are still quite capable against CONCACAF competition and also have the experience in this exact competition and against Mexico. Surely both are motivated for a bit of redemption as well.

Friendlies against Jamaica and Venezuela will give Berhalter a chance to try out players like Tyler Boyd, Marlon Fossey, and Miles Robinson should they impress amongst a 40-player field (although the Jamaica match on June 5 in Washington, D.C. is a day before the final rosters are due for the Gold Cup).

Now what we are trying to solve here is who is the best bet to help the Yanks win the dang thing.

Defenders: Aaron Long, Matt Miazga, and Tim Ream are the favorites to start at the two center back spots and left back, but Daniel Lovitz will try to push Ream after a rough season at Fulham. Both Walker Zimmerman and Omar Gonzalez are in good form, and you can bet Berhalter will give Cameron Carter-Vickers a chance to earn some time. A flat back four role gives Antonee Robinson hope in place of Ream, and if Adams moves into the midfield, Nick Lima did alright in his right back role in January.

Midfielders/Wingers: The spots around Pulisic should be filled by those who can keep the width of the field but also serve somewhat as enforcers for the No. 10. Sebastian Lletget gives them a good shot on one side, and Paul Arriola provides a similar spot. While Joe Gyau, Josh Sargent, Duane Holmes, and Djordje Mihailovic can hope to challenge, the MLS vets with experience outside the country are good bets to get the gigs.

Zack Steffen (if healthy)

Adams — Miazga — Long — Ream

McKennie — Bradley

Arriola — Pulisic — Lletget

Altidore

Does that get the job done against Mexico? Probably not, but it’ll give Tata Martino’s men a hassle.

Report: Man City could use Gabriel Jesus to get Rodri

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At the root of this report is a question to which we don’t know the answer: How highly does Pep Guardiola rate Gabriel Jesus?

A report from Spanish outlet AS says Guardiola could use his young striker to lure Atletico Madrid into a swap deal, landing Manchester City their stirring defensive midfielder Rodri.

[ MORE: Players to watch at U-20 World Cup ]

Rodri is a nearly year older than 22-year-old Jesus, and is more instrumental to his current club. One of Atletico Madrid’s top talents, his $78 million release clause is an obvious route for City.

If Guardiola doesn’t see Jesus as a huge part of the club’s future, however, the manager may be able to go nearly like-for-like money-wise.

Jesus scored nearly every other game for City in all competitions, nabbing 21 goals in 47 matches, and has 13 goals in 27 caps for Brazil. Those are good numbers, especially with still-electric Sergio Aguero turning 31 this summer.

At his relatively tender age, Jesus has appeared 100 times for Man City and his 45 goals are made more impressive by less than 5600 total minutes in those matches.

Giving up on him to complete his midfield is a tough one. We think it’s more likely Guardiola pays the release clause… unless the manager simply doesn’t rate the player.

Players to watch at the U-20 World Cup

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The U-20 World Cup begins this week in Poland, and there are a bevy of future stars to watch, as well as several who will make their names during the tournament.

We’ll focus on the former. While England’s failure to qualify somewhat limits the Premier League starlets on show, there are still plenty from the English top flight.


Tim Weah, United States (PSG) — After a loan at Celtic and time with the full USMNT, how much can he dominate back in his age group?

Alban Lafont, France (Fiorentina) — At age 20, he’s already the starter between the sticks for his Serie A mainstays.

Diego Lainez, Mexico (Real Betis) — Eighteen with 12 league appearances for Real Betis, Lainez is a massive part of El Tri‘s future and carries four caps to his name.

Ruben Vinagre, Portugal (Wolves) — Wolves were promoted, and Vinagre actually made eight more appearances (17) than he made in the Championship.

Ezequiel Barco, Argentina (Atlanta United) — His sophomore season for the Five Stripes has been better than his debut campaign, though that’s not saying a ton given the hype.

Evan N’Dicka, France (Eintracht Frankfurt) — Plenty of playing time in the Bundesliga at the age of 19 for this towering center back.

Paxton Pomykal, United States (FC Dallas) — Looking good in MLS. How much should that translate on this stage?

Andriy Lunin, Ukraine (Real Madrid) — Won’t be wearing the white of Madrid in meaningful action any time soon, but made four appearances on loan for Leganes as a 20-year-old.

Sebastian Soto, United States (Hannover 96) — Not the American-born Bundesliga starlet we expected had we created this list months ago, but Soto has made his Bundesliga debut, so there’s a lot to like while Josh Sargent works with the full USMNT.

Dan Zagadou, France (Borussia Dortmund) — The left- and center back has 25 first team appearances for BVB at 19.

Diogo Dalot, Portugal (Manchester United) — Red Devils supporters know about this fella, who was purchased under the watch of Jose Mourinho last summer.

Mickael Cuisance, France (Borussia Monchengladbach) — Took a step back after his blockbuster ‘Gladbach breakthrough in 2017-18, but will be a key piece for the favorites.

Moussa Sylla, France (Monaco) — The winger is already a factor for AS Monaco, even if they struggled this season.

Bonus: Erling Håland, Denmark (Red Bull Salzburg); Ronald Araujo, Uruguay (Barcelona); Tom Dele-Bashiru, Nigeira (Manchester City).